The Dryden Observer

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FEATURE — Everything was beautiful: A tale of growing up in the remote North

Chris Marchand

Chris Marchand served as editor of the Dryden Observer from August 2009 to April 2018.
DAARN’s Living Library Project kicked off its series with speaker Ky Harper at the Dryden Library, Nov. 27. Photo by Samantha Hawkins

By Samantha Hawkins

It was a beautiful beginning to the Dryden Public Library and Dryden Area Anti-Racism Network’s (DAARN) Living Library, as Ky Harper, Lady of the River, told her inspiring story about growing up in the remote North.

Currently Ky is the Youth Cultural Role Model for the Dryden Native Friendship Centre (DNFC), a jingle dress dancer, staff carrier (her Eagle staff, ‘Strong Current’ is for leadership and family healing) and is a newly elected board member for the DAARN committee, but for the first seven years of her life, Ky lived on a remote island north of Sandy Lake with her grandparents and older brother.

Living a life of the land, in a cabin built by hand, Ky and her family hunted, gardened, preserved food, smoked meat and collected water from the lake every morning, regardless of the weather. All of their food was cooked over the fire, and their furniture built with ‘lumber’ courtesy of neighbouring beavers. Ky remembers this time as the most beautiful, saying she would go back to that way of life in a heartbeat.

“I didn’t have any mirrors growing up, so I didn’t even know how I looked until I was seven years old. Growing up, everything was so beautiful.”

Sitting in front of the fire with her family for hours each night, Ky would curl up and some nights a lady in a jingle dress would appear, dancing in the fire inspiring Ky in so many ways, especially later in life when she was to see a jingle dress for the first time and understand the connection.

When she was younger, Ky says she could speak full Ogi-Cree, and she remembers it vividly because something happened when she spoke the language.

“When I spoke, it wasn’t just me telling a story, it was that you could feel it. When I spoke of the grass, you could feel it under your feet, when I spoke of the air you could smell it. It was such a beautiful language, but then all of a sudden, like that, everything English, and I don’t remember how that happened.”

A lot of things changed for Ky when she moved to Sandy Lake at the age of seven. A community of about 3,000 people, with almost a dozen churches, Ky was baptized by the United Church and knew very little of her culture growing up.

“When I moved to the reservation, I was introduced to so many different things, and it was really heartbreaking because on my island everything was so beautiful, but when I moved to the rez they introduced me to a word I had never heard before. That word was ugly.”

Growing up without mirrors or criticism, Ky believed she was a beautiful princess, but to those in Sandy Lake, she was ‘too light’ and later for those in Red Lake, she was ‘too dark’. Looking back amidst all of that condemnation and ugliness, Ky says, is where she learnt how to accept everyone for who they were.

As a teenager though, the ugliness invaded Ky’s life as she spiraled into drugs, alcohol and an abusive relationship, which lead her to purposefully seek incarceration, simply to escape the abuse. Through all of that, aside from stealing from her grandparents, Ky says she regrets nothing from her past and maintains that she has used every experience to grow and learn not to take things for granted.

“If I hadn’t gone through any of that, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be sharing my story.”

Eventually the ugliness began to fade and having made her first jingle dress, a dress for healing, and through meeting so many supportive and kind people, like her boyfriend Storm, the people of DAARN and Sally Ledger and the staff at the DNFC, she is beginning to find the beauty again, and hopes to inspire more people as she continues to learn and grow on her path to find her true culture, and with it her true self.

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